Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rav Hirsch: Hero or Heretic?

Tomorrow is the 125th yahrzeit of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. The official line amongst Orthodox Jews of all stripes is that Rav Hirsch was a hero who saved Torah Judaism. But when we come to his views on Torah and science, there is a remarkable divergence of views.

There are three significant positions that Rav Hirsch takes with regard to Torah and science. First is his being one of the earliest prestigious rabbinic authorities to recognize that evolution poses no theological problems:
Even if this notion were ever to gain complete acceptance by the scientific world, Jewish thought, unlike the reasoning of the high priest of that nation (probably a reference to Thomas Huxley, who advocated Darwinism with missionary fervor—N.S.), would nonetheless never summon us to revere a still extant representative of this primal form (an ape—N.S.) as the supposed ancestor of us all. Rather, Judaism in that case would call upon its adherents to give even greater reverence than ever before to the one, sole God Who, in His boundless creative wisdom and eternal omnipotence, needed to bring into existence no more than one single, amorphous nucleus, and one single law of “adaptation and heredity” in order to bring forth, from what seemed chaos but was in fact a very definite order, the infinite variety of species we know today, each with its unique characteristics that sets it apart from all other creatures. (Collected Writings, vol. VII, p. 26; for further discussion, see this post)
The second significant position that Rav Hirsch takes is with his explanation of how the Torah can contain inaccurate descriptions of the universe:
Jewish scholarship has never regarded the Bible as a textbook for physical or even abstract doctrines. In its view the main emphasis of the Bible is always on the ethical and social structure and development of life on earth; that is, on the observance of laws through which the momentous events of our nation’s history are converted from abstract truths into concrete convictions. That is why Jewish scholarship regards the Bible as speaking consistently in “human language;” the Bible does not describe things in terms of objective truths known only to God, but in terms of human understanding, which is, after all, the basis for human language and expression. (Collected Writings vol. 7 p. 57)
Third is Rav Hirsch's elaboration of the idea that the Sages of the Talmud did not possess any special knowledge of the natural sciences and thus accepted whatever notions were prevalent in their era, even those that were mistaken:
...The first principle that every student of Chazal’s statements must keep before his eyes is the following: Chazal were the sages of G-d’s law - the receivers, transmitters, and teachers of His toros, His mitzvos, and His interpersonal laws. They did not especially master the natural sciences, geometry, astronomy, or medicine - except insofar as they needed them for knowing, observing, and fulfilling the Torah. We do not find that this knowledge was transmitted to them from Sinai... The greatness of a person's wisdom is in no way belittled if in a later generation it is discovered that some of the things he maintained or accepted on the authority of others are unreliable. The same is true for Chazal in these areas. (Collected Writings vol. 9; for the full text and further discussion, see this post)
My own mentor, Rav Aryeh Carmell ztz"l, stressed the importance of Rav Hirsch's approach in these areas. I know that Rav Hirsch's writings in these areas were an immense help to me, and I have seen them help thousands of people who struggle with religious crises in this area. Feldheim Publishers included Rav Hirsch's writings on these topics in their "Collected Writings" series. To all of us, Rav Hirsch's approaches in these topics further confirms his status as a hero.

But there are those who take a different view of Rav Hirsch's approach in this area. In the late and unlamented Jewish Observer, the revisionist Rabbi Joseph Elias fundamentally distorted Rav Hirsch's views and claimed that Rav Hirsch never really intended them seriously. Rav Moshe Shapiro holds that such an approach to Chazal is a fundamental perversion of the Gemara and blatantly heretical; after being disproven in his claim that Rav Hirsch's writings were forgeries, Rav Shapiro stated that "Rav Hirsch is not from our Beis HaMidrash." Rav Aharon Feldman maintains that Rav Elyashiv "paskened" Rav Hirsch's approach to be heresy for all Klal Yisrael; when I asked him how he could do such a thing, Rav Feldman told me that "Rav Elyashiv is bigger than Rav Hirsch" (which did not seem to answer the question). Rabbi Moshe Meiselman likewise maintains that the approach of Rav Hirsch (in all three areas mentioned above) is heresy, and therefore entirely omits Rav Hirsch's views on these topics from his 800 page book on Torah, Chazal and Science.

I find it fascinating that within one very small group of relatively similar people - the Anglo Orthodox Jewish community - there are those who consider Rav Hirsch's approach in these topics to be true, life-saving, and heroic, and there are those who consider it to be false, deadly and heretical.


  1. "Rav Feldman told me that 'Rav Elyashiv is bigger than Rav Hirsch' "
    Doesn't Rabbi Feldman believe in yeridas hadoros?
    Joking aside, Rav Elyashiv was more of a poseik than Rav Hirsch, and so perhaps had more "halachic knowledge" (although that doesn't always guarantee a better psak!), but that has no bearing on profundity of their hashkafic/philosophical thought.
    Would Rabbi Feldman be so quick to claim that Rav Elyashiv was greater than R' Dessler, R' Yaakov Kaminetzky, the Chofetz Chaim, the Steipler, as well?

  2. As an admirer and a descendant of Rav Hirsch, I have no trouble declaring that anyone, even a so-called gadol, who rejects his approach to Torah and science is not in *my* beis medrash. So there.

  3. "Rav Hirsch's approach to be heresy for all Klal Yisrael; when I asked him how he could do such a thing, Rav Feldman told me that "Rav Elyashiv is bigger than Rav Hirsch" (which did not seem to answer the question)."

    The irony is that in previous generations, no Gadol saw fit to do away with a valuable approach.

    Sociologically, yeshiva students stopped going to secular colleges unlike the 1960's and 1970's. When your books became a threat, the judgment call was that people were too insular to be bothered by secular challenges in general; hence, RSRH's approach was no longer valuable, and indeed harmful.

  4. In the Yeshiva velt the feeling has always been that Hirsch var nicht a lamdan so nothing he has written is 'canonical.'

  5. Rav Hirsch's statement regarding Chumash including incorrect physical info seems strange if one accepts that Chazal knew maaseh merkavah, which the Rambam explains means physical metzi'us as Rav Meiselman seems to prove in his book. Rav Hirsh is certainly cholek on the Ramban's introduction to Chumash which says the Torah hints at everything. Why should such a document write incorrect information?

    1. Avraham1,
      Why should such a document write scientifically accurate information? If god wanted to give over secrets of science in the chumash we would have had the industrial revolution etc. going in to Canaan!

  6. The chutzpah of those people to talk about R' Hirsch like that. Absolutely astounding. Such hypocrisy.

    A Rav of mine who knew R' Elyashiv pretty well told me that all sorts of people misused R' Elyashiv, because in reality he never imposed his views on anyone. They turned him into something he was not, which was this kanoi.

    They also really have deified him. They really get carried away with it. According to Marc Shapiro, R' Avraham Shapiro was his equal in Torah.

    R' Elyashiv attended the classes of R' I. Herzog. What would these same people say about him?

    This generation of Rabbis really have lost their way. They are like kids playing house when the parents are out but they really think they are the parents.

    I'm unsure if this blog should have even publicized their stupid comments.

  7. The expression 'not in my beis midrash' just means not part of my mesorah. The Rav said the same thing about the Maharal.

  8. avraham1,

    I assume you meant that Rambam wrote that "maaseh B'reishit" is physics while "maashe merkavah" is theosophical metaphysics.

    In any case, trying to equate Rambam's rationalist (not empiricist) Aristotelian physics with modern science is a complete category error.

  9. Brooklyn Refugee SheygitzDecember 30, 2013 at 1:43 PM

    Mr. Eliezer Jessleson, the director of the bar ilan "kollel" had an interesting piece this past weekend on Rav SR Hirsch's views on the role of Jews in galut and the anticipated direction of the geulah.
    In what must be a very strong feat of intellectual honesty, Mr. Jessleson admitted that Rav SR Hirch's views on these issues were proven wrong by history (painfully so...)
    Unfortunately the article is not yet up on Makor Rishon's supplement site.

    what I find ironic here is that while the Anglo Orthodox Jewish community has many who consider his views on science and torah to be false, deadly and heretical, many of these same people still essnetially maintain the validity of Rav SR Hirsch views on galut and geulah and would even suggest that Rav Hirsch's approach in these topics to be true, life-saving, and heroic - and act in directing their lives and their communities based on these principles.
    Even after history has PROVEN that they were DEADLY to the Jewish people.

    I would even humbly suggest that Rav SR Hirsch's views on galut and geulah have regained traction in some of the American modern orthodox community portions of which have turned to non-Zionism or even anti-Zionism. So the views on these issues are not necessarily coorelated.

  10. According to your ("slightly") dishonest attacker, we can ignore what Rav Hirsch says if we don't like it, while keeping Rav Hirsch's status as a Goan.

    He says (with regards to Rav Meiselman's book)
    "But it does not discuss Rav Hirsch's letters on the Aggada. (It is clear Rav Hirsch's approach to Chazal was based mainly on the alleged position of Rav Avrohom ben HaRambam. After showing that source to be unreliable, Rav Hisrch's letters become irrelevant.)"

    And further explains himself:

    "I was referring to Rav Hirsch's line that Chazal were not scientists, astronomers etc. and they only have to be believed regarding halacha--not scientific matters"

    So, Rav Hirsch only doesn't matter when they (dishonest people) disagree with him.

    This guy is a hoot AND a holler. I have never seen such dishonesty written down in a place where people can actually go and read it.

  11. Also, in the Birchas SHmuel (Baruch Beir Leibowitz, a disciple of Rav Elchanon Wasserman I believe), he writes at the end of Kiddushin a whole essay on how Rav Hirsch's derech is a horaas sha. Thereby, anything Rav Hirsch says can be written off, but the man himself is still a great person.

    One of the great intellectual acrobats figures out how to not insult a Gadol, but still manages to write him off. Astounding!

  12. I don't understand why the Torah couldn't just say mum about certain scientific things instead of bringing up erroneous information of the common peoples. Furthermore, if the Torah is meant to be eternal why limit the way of speaking to an ignorant people of a certain, limited epoch. An all-knowing mind could figure out a language that speaks also to all the future generations also, no?

  13. An over-obsession with R. Hirsch is dangerous and unnecessary, in my opinion. Rationale people beleive things because their intellect tells them so, not because R. Hirsch sanctioned it. Rationale people do not hero worship or Godol worship - that's for other people. An over-reliance on R. Hirsch or R. Avraham ben Harambam allows others to claim them as mere outliers.

  14. I know this does not completely fit with this post, but since you mention R' Meiselman, here seems as good a place as any.

    After reading many posts about R' Meiselman's book, I finally saw it in a Judaica store. I flipped to the chapters on the Mabul and read about 15 pages. I see why you're forced to make very specific arguments trying to show how he contradicts his own philosophy because seeing the book makes what you're trying to say abundantly clear. In reality, anyone who picks it up and reads just a few pages will immediately recognize the quasi-academic style it is written in, see the authoritative headings which dismiss issues without really addressing them, and the poor arguments. For one very small example, R' Meiselman completely dismisses 'historical science' (as opposed to something immediately observable) and then uses that to in turn dismiss their version of geological history. He then essentially repackages the 'Hashem made the Earth look old' argument. He says he isn't doing that, but his argument boils down to the same thing.

    The book feels more like a Torah and Science book in the style of an Artscroll Gedolim book. (No disrespect meant to Artscroll.) Tying everything in a neat package and there remains a single golden path of Mesorah with ever so small aberrations along the way which we can then call minority views. It's the sort of book where you can't quite explain what the problem is, but the book is dripping in said problem and as I've said, reading just a few pages makes it very clear.

    It makes me feel like your arguments with R' Kornreich and the like are completely futile. I understand why you feel a need to do it, but he will always have a source to rely on, or find a way to cut apart the wording you used to get off on some technicality, etc. I would argue this book will only appeal to left wing Yeshivish (who are at least engaging in the questions) and right wing Modern Orthodox (who are familiar with the questions but want a 'frummer' answer), but I guess in the Jewish world that's already a large segment. Not to mention a demographic which includes some people who will read your books as well.

    In short, keep fighting the good fight, but to anyone reading who wants to truly understand the issues with R' Meiselman's book, a 5 minute look will answer everything you need to know.

  15. We really don't require a generally acknowledged religious figure to authenticate the view that the torah is not a science book. It is obvious from the text itself. There are no 'natural' mechanisms described for the various divine deeds such as creation, nor is the ostensible time (or sequence) of creation acts in accord with established scientific facts. It should be a given that the torah uses conventional idioms or metaphoric expressions such as 'charon af' or 'arim betzurot bashamayim'. It is then only a matter of deciding what to take literally and what to consider as metaphor. Traditionally, a creation day was considered to be a 'normal' 24 hour period. Reconciling the torah with established facts, however, appears to require that it be treated metaphorically as an unspecified time period or era. The ostensible object of the torah is to teach lessons for living, not scientific facts. On the other hand, assigning the problem areas such as the creation narrative to allegory or myth, appears to be inconsistent with regarding the torah as a book of truth (torat emet). I advocate, instead, a middle position which is to find a way of reconciling the torah's account with known facts.

  16. "In the late and unlamented Jewish Observer, the revisionist Rabbi Joseph Elias fundamentally distorted Rav Hirsch's views and claimed that Rav Hirsch never really intended them seriously."

    My father R' Nachman Bulman z'l was the founding editor of the Jewish Observer. He disagreed sharply with R' Elias regarding the way the latter interpreted Hirsch. He felt, just as you say, that R' Elias distorted R' Hirsch's views.

    My father emphatically did not believe that TIDE was a horaas sha'ah; he believed that Hirsch believed that TIDE was the true, original mesorah of how Jews are to live.

    Nevertheless my father did not reject the chareidi/Mir/Lakewood model; he looked upon the so-called "Torah-only" model as akin to a particular shevet -- Levi, Yisachar -- under the rubric of Klal Yisrael. My father had huge respect for any talmid chacham, even one with whom he disagreed hashkafically, and would have been most upset with some of the denigrating language some MO people use about great Torah scholars in the RW world.

    PS The very fact that R' Meiselman writes in English, that Yated, Mishpacha, Ami et al publish in English, that ArtScroll, Feldheim et al publish in English; and that all of them strive to use correct, literary English -- which can only be acquired via wide reading of secular literature -- proves that TIDE is the only possible way to live in the world today.

    If TIDE is horaas sha'ah, what is the sha'ah? We are still in that sha'ah, my father said! And we are in that sha'ah in almost every country in almost every era.

    I do lament the loss of the Jewish Observer, especially as it was in its early years.

  17. “An over-obsession with R. Hirsch is dangerous and unnecessary, in my opinion. Rationale people believe [sic] things because their intellect tells them so, not because R. Hirsch sanctioned it.”

    Apart from any specific appeal to authority or the dictates of reason, one might simply have a personal mesorah that is in accord with R. Hirsch, Rabbeinu Avraham, et al., but not explicitly based on them. I have a such mesorah from my father and grandfather. For all I know, it goes back to Sinai, as I’m quite sure other elements of my mesorah do. As someone fortunate enough to have "A" mesorah, any such thing as "THE mesorah" is irrelevant to me.

  18. What type of biblical “inaccurate descriptions of the universe” did R Hirsch consider nonproblematic? The creation account, where Midrash says that it specifically is not literal? Or hyperbole that humans occasionally resort to such as 'arim betzurot bashamayim'? Is he as extensive as Ibn Kaspi?

  19. One shouldn't take R Hirsch'es scholarship lightly. When the Ksav Sofer returned from a rabbinic convention in Vienna that he and R Hirsch attended, and where he spoke to R Hirsch, he reported to his people that they have no idea what a talmid chacham R Hirsch is. But luckily R Hirsch himself is unaware of this or else he would put all of us (i.e. even the Ksav Sofer) aside.

  20. Shades of Grey said, “When your books became a threat, the judgment call was that people were too insular to be bothered by secular challenges in general; hence, RSRH's approach was no longer valuable, and indeed harmful.”

    That just begs the question. Who decided that his books were a threat? There are ways to convey to your followers that R Hirsch’es approach is not for “us”, and even harmful for “us” but ok for others. I think (and I believe RNS also thinks) that indeed R Hirsch’es approach is great for some and harmful for others. Why the sweeping rejection?

    And it’s not that “people were too insular to be bothered by secular challenges in general.” It’s that the ENGINEERS OF THE CHEREM were too insular to realize how many people ARE bothered by secular challenges. And too insular to realize how many people knew that RH’s approach was valid (and would be horrified by the cherem).

    It’s mainly after the cherem that RH’s position is a “problem”. His position has to be sidelined in order to retroactively justify the cherem.

    Ditto with all the anti RNS literature (actually anti geonim rishonim achronim literature) from R Meiselman, Dr IB, R Coffer, FK Meiselmaniac, etc. etc. All this is to retroactively justify the cherem.

    But unfortunately “all the king’s men can’t put HD back together again.”

    Give up… or remain in denial….

  21. Yisrael writes: "This generation of Rabbis really have lost their way."
    Why generalize like that?
    R' Slifkin is also a rabbi, don't forget. And is it just rabbis?

  22. @shades, my last sentence was intended for the anti RNS authors, not for you. I hope there was no misunderstanding.

  23. "It’s that the ENGINEERS OF THE CHEREM were too insular to realize how many people ARE bothered by secular challenges"

    That may be true. I'm suggesting that one part of the puzzle was that the makeup of the Yeshiva world changed, and the banners were addressing a more insular core population.

    Can you imagine Feldheim publishing R. Norman Lamm's books today as it did in 1970("Royal Reach")? Artscroll was not yet founded. R. Mordechai Gifter was involved with Yavneh for college students(see recent "History and Nostalgia:The Rise and Fall of the Yavneh Organization" in 10/13 TUM Journal).

  24. A commenter,I believe, on the Emes Ve-emunah blog cited an interview with the late Ner Yisroel rosh yeshiva, Rav Ya'akov Weinberg that has a bearing on the observation about the observed disparity among anglos. Rav Weinberg stated that the large majority of yeshiva students were conformists. While this made life easier for the administration, it also made for mediocrity in that some of the non-conformists had the greater potential.

    Those who would simply dismiss ideas not consistent with what their yeshiva taught as dangerous and heretical are the conformists. Former yeshiva people like R' Natan who are independent thinkers are the above non-conformists. Hopefully, the information explosion facilitated by the internet coupled with the striking unreality or self-destruction of the "torah only" ideology will convince more and more yeshiva people to start thinking for themselves.

  25. This seems a continuation of the other threads, such as earth-lice, or demons. Yes, they did believe what most pother people believed about the natural world. there was not a lot of experimentation or exploring going on, just received wisdom- if that`s what they say, then it1s true.

    As for all this business of calling contrary opinions forgeries, or apikorsus, it brings to mind that old Ring Lardner quote; `Shut up`, he explained


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